In April 2014, I received the first printed copy of a book I had written titled The Challenging Journey. But little did I know, the publication of my story would open the next chapter of my life.
Initially written for the family, it was a warts-and-all story about my experience with my husband Don’s 20-year battle with dementia. I wanted to give my family a fuller picture of the disease and teach them that awareness of even the subtlest changes is important to record. Although I had only intended to share my story with friends and family, a friend who had worked as a university professor for many years convinced me to release the book to the public.
On the week of the launch event, the local newspaper had published a story about my book and word began to spread. In addition to the 20 friends and family I was expecting, an extra 60 people from the community were there to celebrate. Word of the story continued to spread after the launch and soon I was being asked to discuss the book for newspaper, radio and online interviews.
What is happening? I thought to myself.
Shortly after the launch, a lady from Dementia Outreach invited me to share my story with a group of 20 or so. To my surprise – and pleasure – I found myself at ease speaking in front of people who had a genuine interest.
I had been doing around two presentations a month when I was invited by Dementia Outreach to be a guest speaker at the Aged Care Symposium in August. This time I responded with a confident yes and kept an eye out for the promised programme to arrive in the mail.
When it came I had quite a shock and had to reread the programme a few times. I had been invited to speak to a group of 170 doctors, professors and various health workers.
“I can’t do this at my age,” I told the woman from Dementia Outreach over the phone, a rising panic in my voice.
“Of course, you can,” she said. “It’s the very reason we want you.”
Although I still wasn’t fully convinced, my son assured me that I would be fine and I decided to stick to my commitment. When I arrived, I was quite nervous but as my son had predicted, I was indeed “fine”. As I walked up those stairs and onto the stage, I realised how honoured I was to share my story, and I began to relax.
I was amazed by the reception, and the sound of the audience’s applause was ringing in my ears for hours after the speech. I was especially thrilled when, after hearing my presentation, the GNC Clinical Dementia organisation asked to use extracts from my book for an online health course in 2015.
A few years previously, when I was 85 and Don had been sick for some time, I had to undergo a life-threatening open-heart operation, suffered a massive stroke and found myself on a subsequent rollercoaster of hope and despair. As I was recovering, I wrote a list called “Things I Am Grateful For”.
Beside each letter of the alphabet, I recorded all of the important (and not so important) things for which I was thankful. For example, next to “A” I had written “Alive”, as I was grateful to have survived. Although I vowed to live by my ABCs, I admit that as I got better and the difficulties of looking after Don got worse, I let them fall by the wayside.
I have revised this list since Don’s passing and now beside “A” I write “Attitude” and beside “B” I record the “Belief” that my brain is not just there to fill space in my skull, but to give me “Confidence” and “Courage”. Sharing the ups and downs of our life together has led me to focus on the things I am grateful for and take the glass-half-full approach to life.
Telling my story allowed me to cast away negativity and gave me the courage to share my enthusiasm for the future, even at the ripe age of 92.
Despite the challenges of our final years together, I can now look back on our 63 years of marriage and remember Don as the smiling, singing man I married all those years ago.
Yvonne Hammond, 92, from Ballina in NSW, is a mother of two, a grandmother of three and a great-grandmother of two. Now retired, Yvonne enjoys volunteering and researching family history.
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